Special to the NNPA from the Howard University News Service
WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Men and women must learn to love themselves first and be more open-minded if they want to get married and stay married. This was the conclusion of experts during a forum on relationships at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative weekend in Washington.
"Love thyself" is the first commandment of love," author and family therapist Audrey Chapman told the audience at the forum.
"Single Women, Unmarried Men: What Has Happened to Marriage in the Black Community" was sponsored by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-Wash.
"So many relationships are failing because no one is perfecting their relationship within," said Chapman, host of "The Audrey Chapman Show" on WHUR-FM. African-Americans will never move forward until they heal baggage of the past, she added.
In a room filled with more than 200 people sitting and standing, Norton, who is divorced, shared her journey as a married woman and how she has observed the decline of African American marriages throughout the past 30 years. Norton noted that during slavery, 80 percent of African American children were raised in households with married parents; now 70 percent are raised in single-parent homes There were often more questions than answers.
"What happened to the knight in shining armor?" asked Chapman, who displayed a graph showing that African American and Latino men and women have the highest unmarried populations. Chapman also noted a growing gap between African American women, who are more educated and successful, and African American men, who are going to college less frequently, but are regular inhabitants in the prison system.
The more educated the woman is, the less likely she will be able to find a mate of the same status, making it harder for her to marry. There are many good African American men out there, Chapman said, but women just have to look beyond the eye's view.
If a woman cannot find the right fit, she should look outside the box, she suggested, offering "the rainbow coalition" as an alternative. Dating outside the race gives more options to African American women, but requires courage, she said. African American women are the only group of women who are devoted to a group of men who are not devoted to them.
Shane Perrault, Ph.D., psychologist, coach and founder of African American Counseling Services in Silver Spring, Md. Perrault opened by asking the women in the audience to describe African American men. The women yelled out "dogs," "unfaithful," "inconsistent," "uneducated," "no class," "gay" and "lazy" among other terms.
Perrault then flipped the script and asked the men to describe African American women. Men described women as being "gold diggers," "harsh," "nagging" and "belittling." Dr. Perrault asked the men if they think African American women have too much attitude. The men agreed that this statement is absolutely true. If a woman is too strong and unapproachable, of course the man is going to seem lazy, said Dr. Perrault.
A woman should look beyond what a man has at the moment, Perrault said. Instead, she should investigate and take notice of his goals and envision his growth over time.
Perrault gives the example of First Lady Michelle Obama. The Obamas have been married for 10 years. When Barack picked up Michelle up for their first date, she could see a hole through the bottom of his car. She didn't look at his status at that time; she looked past it to his drive and determination for the future. She was the breadwinner of their family for years. Perrault asked the women of the audience how many would be willing to support a family with a struggling mate. The audience was silent.
He went on to stress that men and women don't respect, love and trust each other enough to be married. However, getting married is not the problem, he said. "It's staying married that's so difficult."
Dialog indicated a civil war brewing in Black communities and single-parent families raising children who don't understand the importance of marriage. Another perspective was that parents are raising young girls to be more independent, out of fear that they will never find a mate anyway. Dr. Perrault said they are raising young men to be unappreciative of women, and the ratio of men to women is so uneven that men are living a more polygamous lifestyle.
Perrault urges women to elevate and appreciate men because without a strong woman, no man will be the strong and successful mate that she hopes for. But it is a struggle that both parties must be willing to fight.
During the question and answer period, Chapman and Perrault said that having a great friendship first is an important ingredient of a successful relationship and that it enables couples to get to know each other through the good times and the bad.
One young woman asked why so many people claim that hip-hop is the reason so many young African American men do not commit to just one woman. Perrault said none of the speakers were blaming hip-hop, but explained that if women accept being called "sluts" and "hoes," men will have no problem adding these words to their vocabulary. Women don't understand how much power they hold over men, he added.
If a White man rapped about African American women in a degrading manner, everyone would protest the music. Why is it then OK for Black men to degrade Black women? Norton declares that she does not accept this type of treatment and behavior.
She stated passionately, "I am not about to hold Black men at a lower standard than we hold White men."
She also encouraged the audience to start forums in their own cities and towns to evoke change in how they act toward each other and feel about themselves.
She said, "If it doesn't come out, it doesn't exist."
Rochelle Boykin Bey is a graduate student in the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University.